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Did you mean what you just said? Insights on linguistic ambiguities

Did you mean what you just said? Insights on linguistic ambiguities 

By Valentin Pradelou 

Have you ever experienced a situation in which you, or a friend of yours says something, and you understand there are two interpretations for this sentence? It happened at least once for anybody. It can be very funny: I’m talking to the The office fans, “that’s what she said” by Michael Scott exhibits a second interpretation for any sentence. For instance, we had seen, in Issue #29, some cases of funny polysemy/homonymy, which actually were also cases of ambiguity. What would be a thorough definition of this notion? What are the different categories of linguistic ambiguities? Let’s study that a little closer. I had the chance to lecture in this subject in my university, so I’ll base the article on the course, itself based on a very thorough article from Catherine Fuchs in 2009. Let’s go!

What is a linguistic ambiguity? 

As we mentioned, an ambiguity is a sentence or an utterance for which you can understand at least two senses. In other words, and according to Fuchs, the ambiguity is defined as a sentence in which form and sense don’t directly meet each other. Thus, if the construction in the sentence doesn’t lead to one and only one sense, the speaker and the conversation partner must make a choice. This interpretation? Or that one? Or that third one? Sometimes it can get very tricky. 

There are several ways to clear a linguistic ambiguity. First, you can draw some syntactic trees to better understand where the ambiguity is (I’ll spare you on that one) and get what are the interpretations. 

Second, the context. Amongst two or more interpretations of a sentence, one is most of the time more fitting. 

And third, we can defer to a very powerful and complicated linguistic device that’s used to clear ambiguities. It’s called… asking a question. You don’t know what to understand in your conversation partner’s sentence? Ask. It remains the most effective way to clear it. 

But now, one might ask, “are there several categories of ambiguities?” Well, thanks for your question, Bobby, that’s what we talk about in the next part of the article. 

Linguistic ambiguity? No, linguistic ambiguitieS

Then, we find a lot of different categories of ambiguity. There, it’s based on the French language, but I kind of think it’s pretty much applicable to a good number of languages. Who knows? If there are other ambiguity categories in other languages, it could be the subject of a new article. Let’s precise as well that I’ll introduce only a few number of ambiguities, and I advise the article cited before for a better description. 

First up, ambiguity based on pronunciation, or phonetics. Basically, it’s a sentence in which you can understand two versions following the pronunciation. Let’s imagine an example like “Bill, he said that”. If pronounced rapidly, it could result in something close to “Billy said that” and create an ambiguity about who said that. There are other examples such as “I built a house with my bare/bear hands”. Either you didn’t wear gloves, or you love honey and you’re one hell of a skilled animal. 

Second, the syntagmatic ambiguity. There, everything is related with sentence’s constructions. There is one notorious example that we can find on some linguistic memes pages. It’s “Can you help your uncle jack off the horse?”. Either Uncle Jack is a noun syntagm, meaning the uncle is named Jack, or “uncle” is a noun syntagm and “jack off” is a verb syntagm. I rather not talk about it no more. Let’s precise the capital letter, or not, on Jack is supposed to clear the ambiguity as well. We could also invent something like “Mary thinks about time”. Either “about time” completes the whole sentence and it means something like “it’s about time Mary starts to think”. Or “about time” is directly related to “think”, in order to express the idea of Mary thinking about the notion of time. 

Let’s see a last one. This one is pretty interesting, because only context can clear it. It’s called, to Fuchs, the pragmatic ambiguity. in other words, it’s about the link between what’s said and who says it: only the speaker has the correct interpretation in mind. Let’s say, you’re about to get into the tramway, and your friend asks, “Do you have a ticket?”. There are two solutions. First, your friend does have a ticket, he’s just worried about you: if you get caught without a ticket, you’ll have to pay a pretty unfair fare. Or, second, your friend does not have a ticket, and this sentence is a means to intimate he’d like one from you. All these possibilities into a small bunch of words, isn’t it incredible? 


Then, we had a little insight about a linguistic phenomenon anybody has experienced at least once. Let’s recall we only studied three categories of ambiguity, which does not cover the whole phenomenon (at all!). Once again, if you read French, I warmly recommend reading the article from Fuchs (2009) about ambiguity, which is exhaustive. And bear in mind (I don’t have no mountain honey lover animal in my head), ambiguities happen every day, so spot them, and clear them!

Thanks for reading!

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